The Meme-ification of Anthony Bourdain

The Meme-ification of Anthony Bourdain

After Anthony Boudain took his own life in June 2018, the internet was flooded with content memorializing him: obituaries, remembrances, bereft tweets by celebrities and regular citizens alike. But one post in particular foretold the chef’s afterlife on social media. Kyrell Grant, who tweeted as @imbobswaget, suggested that Bourdain had the charismatic aura of someone you might expect to be well endowed — except she said that using a pithy new catchphrase that would quickly enter the popular lexicon, garnering its own entry on

That message on Twitter (now X) may have marked a transition in how people memorialized Bourdain. He was remembered, chiefly, as someone lovable and accessible: straight-talking, salt-of-the-earth, as thoughtful as he was devil-may-care. A real grief surrounded his loss, and he inspired the same types of posthumous adoration so many figures do, complete with words-of-wisdom quotes pasted over nature photos. But it soon became just as common to see posts playing on his drinking habits or salty comebacks; people began to use images of him in the same ways we use images of pop-culture characters like SpongeBob SquarePants or Homer Simpson. Anthony Bourdain became, in short, a meme.

Last month a new Bourdain meme made the rounds. The chef had offered several oft-quoted bits of advice urging people to explore and enjoy the world: “If you’re 22, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel,” or, “Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.” But this new meme paired a pensive portrait of Bourdain with ever more parodic versions of that sentiment. “Go to a [expletive] restaurant. I don’t care what. Go to a [expletive] restaurant and order a [expletive] beer.” A less profane version prodded the reader to take a chance on a Hinge date: “Show her a picture of your cats. Show her two. Give her a tissue while she cries over her ex. Jump over a fence to impress her. Break your ankle. Never hear from her again.” Another tribute hits like whiskey left at a virtual grave: booty shorts emblazoned with the words I MISS ANTHONY BOURDAIN.

If you too miss Anthony Bourdain, and you want to engage in serious communion with his oeuvre, there’s a vast trove of media to satiate your craving: 11 books, various essays and graphic novels, hours and hours of television. He participated in countless interviews, appeared on podcasts, played characters based on himself in TV guest appearances. You might dip into the subreddit r/Anthony Bourdain, which, with its 61,000 members, is in the top 2 percent of Reddit communities by size; that forum, far more earnest than X, is often engaged in forlorn discussion.

But even in that hallowed space, memes cannot help infiltrating. Yet another variation on fake Bourdain advice recently emerged there, imploring the viewer to eat at Chili’s and get an appetizer combo. Some commenters expected moderators to delete the parody; after all, it didn’t “honor” the group’s subject. Others argued that they shouldn’t. Bourdain was a prodigious Twitter user and a funny one; his afterimage, in most minds, is as someone who could laugh at himself. Surely, people felt, he would have appreciated the lightness of a good Bourdain meme.

It’s true that Bourdain didn’t seem to take himself too seriously — but when he did get serious, he was all in. His last show, “Parts Unknown” on CNN, was lauded for its political and anthropological deftness, and it won or was nominated for Emmys for episodes in Kenya, Iran and Borneo. Bourdain was a staunch advocate on behalf of migrant restaurant workers and the #MeToo movement. The viral internet remembers this side of his work, too. When Henry Kissinger died, a line of Bourdain’s circulated repeatedly: “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.”

Bourdain’s character was, by some lights, a lot more self-consciously constructed than that.

Social media can make it feel as if our lost loved ones are still alive beyond the screen, just out of reach; with celebrities we’ve never met, that phenomenon can be even more pronounced. In the age of the parasocial relationship, is it any wonder that people continue to engage with Bourdain’s image? He is far from the first person to loom in public consciousness this way; John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, for instance, are of-the-moment fashion icons, 25 years after their deaths. But Bourdain’s deification feels like something fresh: a parasocial relationship in which the living, yearning for a man who felt like a friend, try to commune with him via parody.

Modern Bourdain memeing is playful, irony-tinged, knowingly unserious. One common meme uses a still from a 2006 “No Reservations” episode in Beirut, with Bourdain announcing, “I got a serious lust for shawarma.” (One user shares it with a two-word caption: “ovulation week.”) An enduring meme called “Bourdain on a train” has him wearing sunglasses and headphones, looking out a window between two trains; people deploy it to joke about the smug worldliness one feels when learning about another culture’s food. (One of the most viral examples simply reads “white people correctly pronouncing pho.”) Other popular images are even more obviously relatable: In a March 2024 Instagram post, Drake included a familiar screenshot of Bourdain saying: “It’s 11:00 a.m. I’ve got like six drinks in me.”

This meme-ified Bourdain persona fits in with the popular narrative of his origins — the unknown chef who stumbled, laughing, into public life. But Bourdain’s character was, by some lights, a lot more self-consciously constructed than that. His first New Yorker article, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” — a 1999 piece that remains one of the magazine’s popular reads — wasn’t pulled from the slush pile by the editor David Remnick, as has often been reported (including by Bourdain himself). Bourdain’s mother was a copy editor at The Times; it was she, one biographer notes, who somewhat bashfully asked Remnick’s wife to pass the essay along. Bourdain took a writing seminar with the famed editor Gordon Lish. He came back from a trip to France marveling to his kitchen comrades that chefs were being treated like rock stars there. He knew that he wanted to be someone, and he worked steadily toward that outcome, even as he used heroin and oversaw 300-cover brunch shifts. He was obsessed with narrative: A 2013 “Parts Unknown” episode in Congo did shed light on often-ignored atrocities, but Bourdain was more eager to visit because of his identification with Joseph Conrad and “Heart of Darkness.” Colleagues said he frequently imagined himself at the center of a movie, in which he was the star; today we might say that he helped invent “main-character energy.” He had a Google alert for his own name set to push notifications.

Bourdain began to shirk the spotlight toward the end of his life, but he had already become someone strangers felt comfortable imagining as though they were the best of friends. The idea that he had crafted his own persona may be slightly at odds with the man who said “not giving a [expletive] is a really fantastic business model for television.” But this self-mythologizing didn’t just serve a purpose in his career; it has cemented his place in a canon. There is a genre of tweet that imagines Bourdain as an analogue for yearning. “Girls don’t miss their ex,” someone posted four years ago, “they miss Anthony Bourdain.” The line still regularly appears on social media. That people have taken the beloved character he constructed and turned it into a beloved caricature is no surprise. It is a natural progression: Man becomes character, and character becomes meme.

Becca Schuh is based in Brooklyn. She writes “Idiots, Continue,” a newsletter on media and internet culture.

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